Thomas McMullan: How a Chinese Wall of Shame Influenced My Novel


An isolated society rules itself by writing on a broad wall in my novel “The Last Good Man,” On the edge of the village, one finds notes and letters about piano lessons and missing pets, but also allegations in red paint while walking up to this building. The butcher, Geoff Sharpe, stole cuts of meat, one of the posters would proclaim. At work, Geoff Sharpe has been loafing. And something is done about it when there are ample charges against a person; atonement is pursued.

This novel comes from a period when public writing problems – and public humiliation – were coming to the fore. These were years when social media architecture had a strong influence on the discussion. Newspapers have featured stories denigrating judges as people’s enemies; rumors of conspiracy have proliferated virulently in sections of the Internet and in populist politicians’ mouths. More recently, when we are required to live and work in close quarters while rule breakers are closely watched by their neighbors, neighborhood tensions have boiled over.

These are current problems, but they have profound origins. The Last Decent Man started in China on the wall of a university. I taught in the Department of English Language and Translation at Nankai University in Tianjin between 2011 and 2013. There was a row of tiny buildings housing photocopiers in one of the older sections of the campus, dating back to the first decades of the People’s Republic of China. There, the floor was overgrown, the walls were dilapidated, the lights were flickering.

The back wall of one of these rooms was plastered with sheets of paper riddled with Chinese characters from top to bottom. My poor Mandarin could not make sense of this writing, but one morning I was accompanied by my girlfriend at that time. Until we had left the room for a long time, far from the eyes of the old woman sitting on a wooden stool and taking money for a photocopy of the report, she did not speak about what she had read on the wall. It turned out that on that wall there were a lot of cruel words; a lot of hateful slurs about named individuals who worked on campus.

I have heard about ⁇ – posters with major characters. There are official writings, mostly anonymous, which are posted prominently on the walls of public places. Since imperial times, they’ve been part of Chinese culture, but many modern Chinese will equate them with the worst days of the Cultural Revolution, when names and insults were written on the walls of universities about allegedly bourgeois anti-revolutionaries, and gangs assaulted the suspected perpetrators. What started as a political instrument led to neighbors in public places defaming each other and settling old scores. In one severe instance, on a poster with big characters, a Beijing teacher convicted of a crime was beaten to death by her own students.

I started writing a story about a culture in the village that was policing itself with writings on the wall. By then, I had been living in London as a journalist and writing a lot about technology. This was at the time when the Gamergate scandal led to the online threat of continued misogynistic abuse, rape threats, and death threats to female video game critics. Soon, under the alt-right flag, there will be a similar vein of abuse-based, hashtag-hinged campaigning. So there was a referendum for Brexit. Trump came along then. It felt very true to think that words on walls lead to acts of abuse. Things have only become more complicated since then.

Duncan Peck journeys to Dartmoor in my book, looking for his nephew, James Hale. In the village, he finds that Hale has become the leader of a community that punishes those accused of crime with shameful punishments, a position that gives him many privileges. But this order of things starts to falter as Hale’s neighbor is accused of cruel acts. There are spilling over personal transgressions and group tensions. For this drama, The Wall appears as a dark canvas: ‘alive with viciousness,’ as Peck says.

Some people have said that the novel makes them think of the “rubber stamp culture.” When I wrote the book, which I’ve been working on for at least five years, the word did not exist. It seems to be a difficult word in either case, used primarily as a pejorative by those who want to prosecute alleged wrongdoing on behalf of


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